EU Heads of States will meet in Brussels on December 17 and 18 to discuss, among other topics, the extension of the financial and trade sanctions against Russia that are set to expire on January 31, 2016.
The initial plan, to approve a six-month technical extension before the Council meeting even took place, had to be scrapped because Italy requested a “political debate” on the issue.
*** The Council will still approve a six-month extension of the sanctions regime, until July 31, 2016. That would represent a compromise solution between the one-year prolongation that some hawkish countries (the UK, Baltic States, Poland) have lobbied for, and the shorter, three-month extension that more dovish member states, led by Italy, have suggested. ***
*** The political debate Italy has called for requires the European Council to review and assess the progress made to date towards the Minsk II agreement on the ground in Ukraine, and is clearly intended to promote their proposal for a shorter three-month extension. But there is little enthusiasm shared at the heads of state level to conduct such a major assessment at this point or to a three month extension, and so a six-month extension appears to be pretty much a done deal to EU officials involved in the process. ***
***That, it appears, would be a reasonable solution to even the most hawkish member states, and it perhaps could even be accompanied with mildly dovish post-meeting comments from certain participants acknowledging and highlighting some, albeit still slow, progress on the ground that would appease Italy and other doves looking to send a more conciliatory signal to Moscow. ***
Slightly Improving Facts on the Ground
Both European Commission and member states sources have repeatedly pointed out that sanctions have been – and should continue to be – “data-dependent,” meaning they are tied to the implementation of the Minsk II agreement (or any future modified version of that), and not subject to political gamesmanship.
While politics of course does always play a role in EU decisions – it took the shooting down of MH17 in July 2014 to push EU countries to agree on trade and financial sanctions against Russia – EU diplomats are this time adamant that only “real, true, verified progress on the ground” (as directly quoted) would provide a break-through for sanctions to be softened or lifted.
That kind of decisive progress on the ground seemed almost there in September, when the Ukraine situation was described as “really encouraging” by EU officials. But progress has slowed in the past month, specifically on weapons withdrawal and regional elections in the Donbass.
The good news nevertheless on weapons withdrawal is that it has, finally, been completed. The bad news is that, according to unofficial sources on the ground, international observers are not being allowed in the area outside of the de-militarized zone, and the weapons have by and large only been moved a kilometer or so away from the front-line.
On regional elections in Donetsk and Luhansk, much to the frustration of EU and US officials, the law that gives the Donbass special status has not been passed yet by the Verkhovna Rada, the Ukrainian Parliament. Without that, the Donetsk and Luhansk Republic leaders have refused to scrap plans to hold their own elections, and whether the foot dragging from Kiev has been used as a pretext, legitimate reason, or a little of both, the pressure in turn on the Donbass leaders from Moscow has only been for now to delay the rebel-sponsored votes, and not scrap the threat entirely.
The slow-down in progress in the Minsk II plan implementation in November and December has therefore made it harder for advocates of a shorter extension – and there are many – although it is widely acknowledged, even by the traditional “hawks,” that the climate between the parties has definitely improved since the lows of early summer.
Indeed the relationship with Russia has somewhat recovered, but the EU would still like to see more signs of this “irreversible progress,” as opposed to what could risk to be merely tactical moves by the rebels and Moscow to temporarily appease the West, for a more substantial de-escalation or lifting of the sanctions regime. But the atmospherics are without a doubt moving in a more positive direction.